Writing a book that purports to capture a nation's cultural past, present and future in fewer than 300 pages is always -- yes, always -- risky. After all, an author who thinks it is possible to explain "the American mind" or "the Chinese mind" or "the Russian mind" must rely on generalizations. And generalizations about ethnically diverse populations with hundreds of millions of citizens spawn so many exceptions that any thesis could seem ludicrous.
And yet, once in a while, an author seems to succeed more than fail. Among current authors, Peter Hessler writing about China is an example. Now comes Anand Giridharadas, writing about India. "India Calling" (Times Books, 273 pages, $25) contains generalizations, yes, and surely will not persuade every reader that the generalizations are valid, given the nation's religious and socioeconomic diversity placed atop a strict caste system.
Still, "India Calling" is worthy. Reared in the Cleveland area during the 1980s and 1990s by highly educated parents who had departed India in 1979, Giridharadas returned to their homeland a decade ago because of his career goals. Then he joined the New York Times staff to write about India. Even if his generalizations about the struggles of Indian citizens to adapt to a highly technological, consumerist, urban wave felt off kilter, the book would be worth reading because of his skill as a writer. Like Hessler writing about China, Giridharadas publishes sentences and paragraphs that are exquisitely worded, to the point of becoming downright memorable, and certainly quotable.
Here is one of my favorite sentences, from the section about how arranged marriages are giving way to Western-style courtships, leavened by carefully calculated Indian practicality: "Margaret's story was, in short, the commonest kind of Indian love story -- a love story brimming with every ingredient but love."
Giridharadas strives to explain the transformations within India by dividing his chapters into broad themes -- love, ambition, pride, anger and freedom. He traveled around the large, diverse nation to find examples of those traits, thus introducing readers to fascinating characters who represent trends.
Giridharadas wisely opens the book with a chapter titled "Dreams." The dreams are mostly those of his grandparents, parents and himself. He explains the warring feelings as he reverses the migration of his parents. Despite their relatively privileged status in India, they departed because they wanted an even better life in the United States. They never believed that anybody, especially their own son, would move from the United States to India to seek betterment. How that happened, and especially why that happened, has yielded a remarkable journey for armchair-traveling readers.
Steve Weinberg is a book critic and journalist in Missouri. He is at www.steveweinbergwriter.com.